The Paramount Vault releases make up the majority of this month’s first time watches: Grim Prairie Tales, The Sender, Shanks and Beneath.
Grim Prairie Tales (Wayne Coe – 1990)
An odd anthology film that spends more time with its wrap-around story than the 4 tales spun from it. Granted, when your wrap-around has James Earl Jones and Brad Dourif, I could see why you might want to give them the lion’s share – unless of course what they are given is 1) a fractured and weirdly paced arc and 2) really crappy direction for their line readings. Dourif plays a man riding back to Jacksonville Florida to see his wife (by horse across the prairies – the time period is likely late 1800s) when he encounters Jones after bunking down for the night in the great wide open. After much wide-eyed yelling at each other, they begin to swap stories. The stories – each one being more of a morality/immorality tale rather than anything horrific – are both interesting and kinda dull. Even though the individual tales are no longer than 10-15 minutes each, the pace is glacial…There’s a dryness to them that simply didn’t engage me. And yet, upon reflection, each one tackles its subject (intolerance, lust, hatred/fear, pride) in a fairly unique and non-obvious way. I have to give the film credit for a different approach. If only it were more entertaining…
The Sender (Roger Christian – 1982)
The Sender is your basic early 80s horror film – straddling between a spooky 70s vibe and an later-80s silliness one. It proves to be quite entertaining and yet not really very good at any one thing. In particular, the consistency of the story and its “rules” is all over the place. A young man (played by an early career Zeljko Ivanek) tries to commit suicide in the opening frames due to recurring visions of his dead mother encouraging him to join her. After being admitted to a mental hospital (with various typical caricatures of “mental” patients), other people begin experiencing hallucinations which are extensions of his own nightmares. His main doctor is convinced he has some telepathic powers, but is never quite sure whether what she is seeing is actually happening – especially once his mother begins showing up. Is it all a dream? Some supernatural powers? Ghosts coming back from the grave? Does it really matter when it’s a pretty fun ride with bleeding mirrors and electro-shock therapy gone wrong? I can only answer that last one…
Shanks (William Castle – 1974)
William Castle’s last film is one odd, odd beast. It’s goofy enough initially and then just spirals (not necessarily in bad ways) into parallel vortexes of slapstick and creepiness. And then the motorcycle gang shows up out of nowhere and things get dark. Marcel Marceau plays a deaf mute puppeteer who gets pushed around by his step-brother and sister-in-law to earn them money. He finds a job helping an old scientist (also played by Marceau) do experiments re-animating dead animals and manages to stave off his grubby relatives for awhile. The expected happens and the re-animation moves from animals to humans, but pretty much everything else after that becomes more and more unexpected. The comedy ranges from painfully cheesy to impressively physical, but at some point things get uncomfortably creepy…One of Marceau’s biggest fans is a young girl (somewhere between 12-16) and their relationship goes from fandom to brother-sister to mentorship to…Well, that’s when it starts getting uncomfortable. And then the motorcycle gang shows up…
Beneath (Dagen Merrill – 2007)
Of course it makes no damn sense and fails any basic sanity test, but I couldn’t help but enjoy Beneath for what it was – a playground and calling card for a first time filmmaker (it’s also somewhat reminiscent of the above The Sender in tone and concept). Essentially a series of moments, shots and set pieces stitched together into a supernatural-siblings-are-connected-to-right-the-wrongs-of-the-past plot, the film avoids many of the pratfalls of recent horror (ie. the last decade or so): CGI is minimal, gore isn’t in your face for no reason, the acting is far more than adequate and cheap jump scares are ignored. If perhaps there’s never a consistent feeling of dread or major investment in the story’s outcome, it still keeps you invested scene to scene in what might happen next. It’s never anything overly shocking or truly unexpected, but it’s usually enough.